When, as a wide-eyed expatriate wife, I first arrived in Hong Kong, I heard this story over a restaurant table. The first time a Hong Kong building was sheathed in reflective glass, the buildings opposite began to suffer from leaks, electrical faults, and illness among their staff. This is because demons, who live in happy ignorance of their own hideousness, were seeing their own reflections in the walls, flying off in terror and bouncing into the building across the street. The geomancer, or feng shui master, was called in to solve the problem, and he recommended the management to sheathe the opposite building in mirror glass. The thought of all those demons ricocheting across the street was pretty unsettling, and I began to avoid walking between mirror buildings, something that was easier to do in the early Eighties than it is now.

The story told over the Hong Kong dinner table demonstrates just how important traditional Chinese belief is in that seemingly ultra-modern city. When the new Hongkong and Shanghai Bank building was put up in Central District, it became the highest building in the area and thus assumed authority over all other business enterprises; but not for long. The Bank of China (which functions as a semi-official Chinese presence in the colony) was also rebuilding. They commissioned a knife-like building so tall that it sometimes gets lost in the clouds, and sheathed it in reflective glass. Thus it was propelling demons – or negative energy, sha – into the other buildings, and cutting into their prosperity with its sharp edges, as well as asserting its authority over the local bank. Along with the Tiananmen Square massacres, it sent a particularly unpleasant signal to the people of Hong Kong. The immediate solution for the bank’s neighbours was the eight-sided ba gwa mirror, which counters the effect of the sharp corners and repels the bad luck and ill-health. The long-term solution is harder to find.

Gladiatorial contests between buildings apart, feng shui is about balancing earth energies to achieve health and prosperity. Both Hong Kong and the People’s Republic, as well as numbers of overseas Chinese, still routinely use the services of the feng shui master in planning construction sites. When the Chinese intended to build a Chinatown of shops in London’s Docklands (a project they abandoned, alas), they consulted Britain’s only qualified feng shui master, Kwok Man Ho, to help with the layout. Manchester’s Chinatown boasts not only a wonderful ceremonial gate solemnly dedicated with full Taoist ritual, including the sacrifice of a cock, but also a carpark embellished with a traditional Chinese garden. The Chinese demolished several buildings to make this space where the evergreen shrubs and rocks help to accumulate the life-force, chi.

Before I went to Hong Kong I read several earnest tomes on philosophic Taoism, usually with a strong Californian tinge, and I could never get my head round them, which was a good thing, since they were light years away from real Chinese belief. Hong Kong taught me better. I ate in Chinese homes and in restaurants with Chinese friends who chose the menu. I learned T’ai Chi, and was treated by acupuncture and acupressure. I got myself overheated, delighted, and deafened at the Cheung Chau bun festival. Chinese beliefs are material, pragmatic and flexible. They are about nature, about food, about prosperity. They are also eclectic. Even fervent Chinese Christians will maintain the ancestral shrine in their sitting room. Chinese people patronise religions according to need. In everyday life, the rituals of birth will be performed by Taoists, the rituals of death by Buddhists (Buddhist monks are bad luck for this reason). The ability to operate contradictory but mutually enriching systems in this way – which I see as a strength – has its basis in the outlook that underpins acupuncture, T’ai Chi, Chinese food and feng shui, an outlook that is at once holistic and adversarial.

The Tao Te Ching says: ‘The Tao gives birth to the One; The One gives birth to the two; The Two give birth to the three; The Three give birth to every living thing. All things are held in yin, and carry yang: and they are held together in the Ch’i of teeming energy.’* The One is the origin, which gives birth to the forces of yin and yang, and from them come the cosmic triad of Heaven, Earth and humanity. It is the conflict of yin and yang that creates chi.

The five Chinese elements, wood, metal, fire, earth and water, are the offspring of the yin and yang, and these elements are also contained within every living thing, as well as in every year of the Chinese astrological calendar, and in the landscape. Ideally, they will be held in equilibrium, but in fact most living things, places, and years, are in a state of slight imbalance. The job of cook, acupuncturist, and feng shui master is to achieve the best balance of these forces.

The concept of yin and yang is based on the cycle of the seasons: spring and summer are yang, which thrusts upwards and outwards when energy is expended, and autumn and winter are yin, because the tendency of nature in these seasons is inwards and downwards, contracting and storing energy. Thus yang is light, warmth, hardness, dryness, maleness and breathing out; yin is darkness, cold, softness, wetness, breathing in and femaleness (though man and woman, being microcosms, contain both yin and yang).

The natural process has become a technological one in Hong Kong, where buildings rise and fall like wheatfields and the Stock Exchange floods and dries out like a river. It is implicit in the ups and downs of tonal language. Always, at the moment when each force is at its height, it begins to give way to the other. The two forces are antagonists, locked in an endless, unwinnable struggle. The elements, in their turn, mesh together in another cycle of production and destruction: wood produces fire, fire produces earth, earth produces metal, metal produces water, water produces wood. But wood destroys earth, earth destroys water, water destroys fire, fire destroys metal, metal destroys wood. Each opposing aspect of nature has its season, which is necessary to the whole.

This cycle of gain and loss is fundamental to the history of China. Emperor Ch’in Shih Huang Ti killed scholars in 221 BC, Mao Zedong did the same in the Cultural Revolution. By contrast, there have been eras when literary attainment was regarded with such reverence that it was forbidden to throw away any used written document, however insignificant. They had to be ritually buried. The word ‘struggle’ was, of course, the byword of the Cultural Revolution: Mao’s hubris, perhaps, was to believe in irreversible change. When the future of Hong Kong was being debated in 1982-3, its Chinese residents were anxious about the enormous pendulum-swings of Chinese affairs: reasonableness, they pointed out, was always a short-lived plant in the People’s Republic. Tiananmen Square surprised nobody. The endless violence and unpredictability of politics drove the ancient philosophers to escape into the mountains and write this sort of poem:

Families, when a child is born
Want it to be intelligent
I, through intelligence,
Having wrecked my whole life,
Only hope the baby will prove
Ignorant and stupid.
Then he will crown a tranquil life
By becoming a Cabinet Minister.

Su T’ung-p’o wrote this in the first century AD (the translation is by Arthur Waley). There is indeed nothing new under the sun.

Space on mountains, however, is limited, and, for ordinary Chinese people, there have been other ways of surviving the harsh and inevitable conflicts of life: feng shui remains one of them.

The feng shui man will understand the principles of Chinese astrology, and will make use of an enormously complex compass: he will understand the significance of geological formations and the shapes of watercourses. Nowadays, he may overfly large sites in a helicopter. Feng shui means ‘wind and water’. Wind and water have formed the land, and are still at work on it and within it. They carry yin and yang, and chi. Chi can be blown away or leak away, but a site must be sufficiently open for it to flow in. So the ideal position for a house is on a well-drained but gentle slope, sheltered from high winds but open to breezes. The trees which grow round many ancient Chinese settlements also help to accumulate chi: trees must not be planted at the front of a house, however, or they will keep it out. (The front door is the entry point for good and bad alike, and is often protected by good luck papers or door gods.) A watercourse in front of the site is desirable, but only if the configuration is auspicious.

This ideal can be achieved in the inner city. Manchester Chinatown is built on a slight slope and surrounded by properly shaped rivers. In Hong Kong, gentle slopes are harder to find, though the harbour holds enough water to accumulate any amount of chi. The feng shui master will also know how to balance the cosmic creatures who govern each side of the house, the Green Dragon (representing fish), the White Tiger (representing mammals), the Red Bird (representing birds), and the Black Tortoise (representing invertebrates). They also represent four of the elements: green for wood, white for gold, red for fire, black for water. The house represents the earth. If one of the creatures is given the opportunity to predominate over the others (if an extension is built, for example) disaster may result.

The perils of failing to make the proper consultations are demonstrated by a story I heard last week. A major Hong Kong firm recently rented new premises. The accountant, who knew something about feng shui, visited the suite and was appalled to see that the door was placed in such a way that chi – and wealth – would find it all-but-impossible to flow into the offices; worse, there was a glass wall that would drain off any chi that did make it through. The expatriate management agreed to buy a chi-collecting fountain. Unfortunately, the delivery period for the fountain was three weeks. In the meantime, the staff moved in: the accountant’s wallet was stolen twice in the first fortnight, an expensive piece of equipment was destroyed in strong winds, and they lost a major business project. On the other hand, once the fountain was installed, matters improved.

Notwithstanding Kwok Man-Ho’s statement that ‘unless you can alter the three major things about your house, you should move’, feng shui is about little things that can be done to help yourself. It is arguable that wealthy people can afford to buy and plan good sites, and that, since wealth generates wealth, a good feng shui position is a symptom, rather than a generator of good fortune. But watercourses can always be replaced by a goldfish tank (with an odd number of goldfish). The destructive force, sha, like the demons that are its manifestation, travels along straight lines, both natural and man-made (hence the zig-zag paths and bridges in Chinese gardens) but it only takes a strategically planted tree or shrub to block the passage of ill-fortune from a telegraph wire or straight road. There is no such thing, in Chinese thought, as ineluctable fate. Only what has already happened is unchangeable. When I was last in Hong Kong, I visited the Middle Kingdom, a quasi-educational theme park featuring Ming Dynasty houses, rice paper-making, Chinese acrobats, and a functioning Chinese temple complete with fortune sticks, where I joined a queue to get a divination. We were flying back to England that evening, so, when I’d shaken the sticks, I was annoyed to be given a paper that announced: ‘Travellers will not reach their destination.’ I then offered three more joss sticks to the god and went back for a second try. This time, I got: ‘Travellers will reach home in record time.’ We landed at Heathrow an hour and a half early, which proves that Chinese good fortune can be got by wheeler-dealing. Though it may only have worked because we travelled with Cathay Pacific.

Taoism has a concept called wu-wei, or doing nothing. What it really means is doing nothing to obstruct, perceiving the Way and co-operating with it. If you sow seed corn in December, there won’t be much of a harvest. It’s perceived to be the will of heaven that you sow the seed at the proper time. The Chinese universe is a sell-correcting system, but humanity is one element in the cosmic triad and must participate in the process. My active search for a good horoscope was wu-wei, a microcosm of that universal tendency towards equilibrium.

If the heart is right, it overrides all the inauspiciousness in the world. This moral is contained in the story of the bad-tempered feng shui master who lost his way travelling in rural China on a hot day. Coming upon a poor woman working in the fields, he asked her for water, explaining that he hadn’t had anything to drink for hours. She brought him a bowl of water, but scattered chaff on the surface, so that he was annoyed by having to stop drinking and blow the chaff away. To pay her back for her action, he recommended her to move to another spot which he knew had disastrous feng shui. Five years later, he came back to the same place, and was staggered to see how wealthy the family had become. He asked her how this could have come about, explaining that he’d told her to move to an unlucky spot. She was horrified, and asked him how she had offended him, so he told her about the water and the chaff. She explained that she had scattered the chaff across the water to stop him drinking too fast and making himself ill. This was why he had done her no harm: her good intent had been stronger than his malice.

The cynic in me wants to describe this as a get-out clause. My answer to myself is another question: if I’d stayed with my first horoscope, would the plane have been hijacked? This proves that I have absorbed some of the Chinese ability to think in two ways at once. Apparently illogical it may be, but it’s a useful quality for a novelist, who has to live within all her characters. Or, to take another Chinese example: bamboo is strong because it gives way to tempest. In Hong Kong bamboo scaffolding is used on all construction sites, because it is flexible enough to survive the periodic assault of typhoons. The high buildings also move in the wind. The virtuous man of Chinese tradition is like bamboo because he can adapt to changing realities without losing his integrity: a useful moral for dogmatists of all persuasions.

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